As I was conducting research on another topic last week, I stumbled upon an article in Psychology Today written by recovery specialist Dan Mager, who posted some eye-opening statistics from a national poll conducted recently by the American Psychiatric Association: “More than one-third of Americans reported that coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health and over half indicated it’s having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.”
It went on to state that “most adults were concerned about the negative impacts of Covid-19 on their finances (57 percent) and almost half were worried about running out of food, medicine, or supplies.”
Indeed, those are some startling figures, considering that we are less than half a year into this pandemic and who knows what the next six months will bring? And isn’t that the crux of the issue, since none of us is capable of predicting the future?
“Uncertainty occurs when the ground with which we’re familiar shifts, seemingly right beneath our feet, and things are in a state of flux where no one knows what will happen next or how things will play out,” said Mr. Mager.
Personally, during these months of unparalleled uncertainty, my ability to “stay present” has been greatly challenged, and for various, unrelated reasons. As I shared with readers in previous columns dating back to late winter, I’ve been dealing with several health issues, which seemingly appeared out of nowhere and still require my attention on a daily basis. Maybe it’s because of this that, now more than ever, I’m particularly focused solely on the needs of today, and not much further beyond.
At the core of such uncertainty, we can always expect to find fear and one or more of its multiple incarnations. In this instance, it’s most likely anxiety that tops the list. If you are anything like me, I have a tendency to mentally run through each and every possible scenario of what might happen in a given situation, long before it’s had a chance to play itself out in real time. Of course it only amplifies one’s stress level to anticipate such outcomes, and rarely does it provide me with comfort of any sort.
World-renowned mindfulness teacher and author Jack Kornfield shares the following passage, titled, “The Wisdom of Not Knowing,” in which he describes this all-too-common phenomenon: “Underneath all the wanting and grasping; underneath the need to understand, is what we have called ‘the body of fear.’ At the root of suffering is a small heart, frightened to be here, afraid to trust the river of change, to let go in this changing world. This small unopened heart grasps and needs, and struggles to control what is unpredictable. But we can never know what will happen. With wisdom, we allow this ‘not knowing’ to become a form of trust.”
As I’ve noticed in situations prior to this current crisis, once one is able to shift their intention and become curious about the fundamental source of our fear, it has a tendency to neutralize the overall impact; thus affording us the freedom to let go. Rather than anticipating each potential scenario, we learn to ease into the moment and remain present as it unfolds. By investing the effort into cultivating this practice, we become less anxious and more comfortable with uncertainty.
Tibetan meditation master and author Pëma Chödrön describes this course of action so eloquently in her groundbreaking work, titled “The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times”:
“As we tentatively step out of our cocoon, we’re bound to be afraid and grab on to what’s familiar. Without ongoing patience and kindness toward this inevitable process, we will never trust that it’s wise and compassionate to relax into the egoless state. We have to gradually develop the confidence that it is liberating to let go.”
She later adds: “When our attitude towards fear becomes more welcoming and inquisitive, there’s a fundamental shift that occurs.”
Clearly this pandemic has affected so many lives in untold ways, yet despite this unwelcome reality, there lie countless opportunities for us to accept these changes and move forward. Or, as the esteemed American mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”